Saturday, May 26, 2007

You’re Still the One, Part X

Question: What one crime, mystery, or thriller novel do you think has been most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years?

Jason Starr, author of The Follower and co-author (with Ken Bruen) of Bust and its forthcoming sequel, Slide:

“I’ll have to go with Lionel White’s crime novel Before I Die [1954]. White is probably best known for his novel The Killing, the basis for the groundbreaking [Stanley] Kubrick film. Before I Die is a terrific, first-person rogue-cop novel that I’ve read a few times and it continues to stand up. It and The Killing deserve to be back in print.”

Declan Burke, Crime Always Pays blogger and author of The Big O:

Fast One, by Paul Cain. “The bigger they come, the faster they fall. Raymond Chandler proposed that a writer ought to have a man come through the door with a gun already in his hand, should things ever threaten to quiet down, and perhaps that’s why he called Fast One ‘ultra hard-boiled.’ With a body count of Cecil B. DeMille proportions, Paul Cain’s only novel (he also published a collection of short stories, Seven Slayers) arrived in 1933, after a serialisation in Black Mask. The joints show, much in the same way as gaps appear between explosions in a fireworks display. The terse, virtually monosyllabic prose seems hammered into the paper (last line: ‘Then, after a little while, life went away from him.’) as gunsel Gerry Kells wreaks havoc in the criminal underworld of Depression-era Los Angeles, his hypnotic paranoia eventually justified as various kingpins conspire to rub him out. Harder than Chandler, bleaker than Hammett, sparer than James M. Cain, Fast One is an incendiary device in book form.”

Sandra Ruttan, the editor of Spinetingler Magazine and author of Suspicious Circumstances:

“My selection is Sob Story [2007], by Carol Anne Davis. Davis takes her time adding to the stew before she brings it to a boil, and the pay-off is incredible characterization in a psychological thriller that builds up to an almost unbearable level of suspense.

Sob Story was my first taste of what Davis can do and I will be seeking out more by this author.”

John Baker, author of White Skin Man and The Meanest Flood:

“I’d like to nominate David Armstrong’s Night’s Black Agents, which was first published in 1993. This is a novel that takes its time, set in the bleak industrial midlands of the 1930s. Armstrong concentrates on character and landscape and with this novel alone, leaves most practitioners of the genre way behind.”

Peter Rozovsky, copy editor and author of the blog Detectives Beyond Borders:

“I’ll propose Lovely Mover [1998], by Bill James, as the most criminally neglected crime novel of my time, though the honor could go equally to any of the middle books of James’ [Colin] Harpur and [Desmond] Iles series, from Astride a Grave to Eton Crop. The books are dark, funny and theatrical, and they offer touching, socially acute views of criminals’ aspirations to middle-class respectability as well as the funniest and most savage views of sexual betrayal one is likely to find in crime fiction. There are plenty of fine crime-fiction writers named James. Bill is the best of them.”

Donna Moore, author of the Lefty Award-winning ... Go to Helena Handbasket:

“I toyed with several forgotten oldies, before realizing that my choice should be a more modern book which was totally underappreciated when it came out. It’s a book I love and which had a huge impact on me because of the wonderful writing, the noir atmosphere, and the memorable characters. It’s Eddie Muller’s The Distance, which came out at the beginning of 2002. It features Billy Nichols, a sportswriter known as ‘Mr. Boxing,’ in 1940s San Francisco. Now, I don’t like boxing, I know nothing about 1940s San Francisco, and when I picked up this book it was with the thought that I probably wasn’t going to enjoy it. How wrong could I be? It’s an amazing book and one which I have read once a year since--and I don’t re-read many books.

“The outstanding appeal of this book for me is the character of Billy Nichols. His tough, cynical outer shell hides a vulnerable interior. He’s not the typical macho noir protagonist. He’s a sensitive, perceptive, flawed man. He’s a storyteller--a chronicler of fact and, sometimes, a creator of fiction. But he’s an honest liar, unlike many of the other characters in the book. Because Billy doesn’t have that cold, self-destructive, caring-for-nothing-and-nobody streak that is the territory of a noir protagonist, the book is suffused with warmth, light, passion, and heart.” The characters have a cinematic quality about them, and the story unfolds like a great film noir. Eddie Muller is a very skillful writer and so good at descriptions that, within a few sentences, the characters come to life in front of you. None of them are stereotypes--each one is capable of surprising the reader. None are all good or all bad. Muller turns the conventions of noir and hard-boiled fiction on their heads--the women in this book are the tough ones. Even those characters who only have bit parts inspire strong emotions. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.”

Blake Crouch, author of Locked Doors:

Night Dogs (1996), by Kent Anderson. “I don’t particularly love procedurals, but this one, about cops in Portland in 1975, is like nothing I’ve ever read in the realm of crime fiction. Raw, funny, and diamond-hard-writing. My all-time favorite crime novel.”

Susan Kandel, author of Christietown:

The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971), by Charles Willeford. “This is the one book by this well-known author that nobody’s read. As a former art critic, I can say with authority that Charles Willeford nails the psycho underside of the rarefied art world. A jaw-dropper of the first order, and sublimely entertaining.”

Vince Keenan, culture critic, blogger:

“It might seem foolish to say a Jess Walter novel is underrated. Consider his track record. His debut, Over Tumbled Graves (2001), was published to great acclaim. His third effort, Citizen Vince (2005), took home the Edgar for Best Novel. The following year, The Zero was a finalist for the National Book Award. The man’s doing just fine without my help.

“But it was 2003’s Land of the Blind that convinced me Walter was a special talent. Blind bowled me over because it works on many levels. As a lovingly detailed portrait of an overlooked, hardscrabble corner of the United States (Spokane, Washington). As a haunting exploration of the ways time does not heal all wounds, and often nurtures the pain. And above all, as the work of an author willing to turn the genre on its head. Blind is a mystery novel that’s short on crime in which everyone is somehow guilty. It also presaged what is turning out to be a dazzling career.”

J. Kingston Pierce, the editor of The Rap Sheet and senior editor of January Magazine:

Castles Burning (1979), by Arthur Lyons. “For an aspiring writer and love-starved recent college graduate, the opening sentences of Lyons’ fifth private eye novel could hardly have held more expectation:
The blonde was bent over the chair, precariously balanced on ten-inch platform heels, looking at me through her legs. Her miniskirt was hiked up past the tops of her black nylons, exposing a patch of purple-pantied pudenda, and she wore a faintly surprised expression on her face, as if she had been expecting someone else.
“But Castles Burning isn’t memorable simply because of who I was, but because of what it contained: the story of an artist who wants to track down the wife and son he abandoned years before, only to have it discovered that both of them were killed in a long-ago car crash; the backdrop of Palm Springs, California, a place mythologized for me because it was the setting for a Raymond Chandler story that he’d never finished and I’d never read (only later would that tale be completed by Robert B. Parker and published, in 1989, as Poodle Springs); and a half-Jewish newspaper reporter turned P.I. from Los Angeles by the name of Jacob Asch, who’d borrowed cynicism from Philip Marlowe, compassion from Lew Archer, and exuberant youthful horniness from Mick Jagger ... and failed to return any of them. Lyons explored the monetary and cultural extremes of Palm Springs, but he also highlighted the darker edges of human behavior, as what began as a track-down case turns into one involving kidnapping, child abuse, and homicide.

“So thrilled was I by Lyons’ work, that in 1980 I bused all the way south from Portland, Oregon, to Palm Springs (where the author’s family operated a restaurant chain) to interview him about Castles Burning and his future fiction. Sadly, 14 years and six novels later (the last being 1994’s False Pretenses), Jacob Asch disappeared--as have so many once-popular series protagonists. Maybe Lyons’ books stopped selling as well as they had, and his publisher dumped him; maybe he just got tired of writing--I don’t know. And I haven’t yet been able to find out, though I may someday. In any event, the fact that the Asch series ended prematurely probably burnishes my memories of each entry in that series. The one that glows the brightest, though, is Castles Burning, now long out of print.”

Rhys Bowen, author of Her Royal Spyness:

An Embarrassment of Corpses, by Alan Beechey. “This was the consummate witty, comic crime novel, beautifully written. It came and went with no fanfare in 1997.

“Unfortunately, most of the overlooked gems will now be out of print.

“I also feel that Peter Dickinson was overlooked as one of the masters in the UK.”

Mike Stotter, the editor of Shots and author of the blog Shotsmag Confidential:

“I must admit to a soft spot for Cotton Comes to Harlem [1965], written by Chester Himes. Although it is the ninth in the Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones series, it stood out amongst all the others. Hard-hitting and using a similar MacGuffin as The Maltese Falcon--a worthless object of desire--and cracking dialogue reminiscent of Chandler, the novel shows the great con in action. I would read it (and the whole series again) if I could find them.”

Stacy Alesi, aka the BookBitch blogger:

About the Author (2001), by John Colapinto. “This ingenious thriller starts off with a simple case of plagiarism, but quickly twists and turns into a spellbinding story of deceit, lust, blackmail, and murder. It’s rare to find a new angle in this genre, but Colapinto did. It’s also the only thriller this author has written, causing some speculation.”

Cameron Hughes, book reviewer of CHUD (Cinematic Happenings Under Development):

The Old Dick (1981), by L.A. Morse. “It’s utterly timeless. Jake Spanner, a retired private detective in his late 70s, is a great character, cranky, sarcastic, introspective about getting old and past loves and friends ... and he grows his pot in his backyard.

“He spends his time on park benches reading trashy detective novels and is mostly content with his life, despite money problems, when his old foe, a mob boss, comes calling. After the funniest slow-walk chase I’ve ever read, the old gangster pleads his case, saying he needs help getting a loved one back. After some grousing and contemplation, Spanner takes the case.

“So he hits the streets, enlisting the aid of other old farts from the glory days.

“After his first success, Spanner declares in defiant triumph, ‘I had done it. I had fucking well done it. I had showed them whoever they were that Jake Spanner could still cut the mustard. That he was good for something more than sitting in a park, absorbing sunlight. Dammit! He had planned an investigation, and run it, and pulled it off. The old dick was still around.’ So, of course, life takes a shit on him and makes the case more difficult and convoluted.

“Its this spirit of rebellion that drives the novel, the fact that it never ignores the idea of death, but challenges it, mocks it, and reminds us never to give up, no matter how many hurtles you have to jump over.

“It’s a true forgotten classic, hell it won an Edgar for Best Paperback Original, and I wish it was back in print.”

J.A. Konrath, author of Dirty Martini:

Still River (2005), by Harry Hunsicker. “This debut mystery, introducing Texas P.I. Lee Henry Oswald, should have won every award the mystery/thriller genre offers. Great characters, terrific twists, macho heroics, and some very funny lines.”


Anonymous said...

Actually The Burnt Orange Heresy was one of the first Willeford books I found, along with Cockfighter. Great stuff

Also I've got Sleaze - L.A. Morse which is a early entry in the Spanner series. Guess I'll finally read it now.

Anonymous said...

My mistake Sleaze features a totally diffrent detective.

Anonymous said...

Sleaze was a Sam Hunter book. There was only one Jake Spanner novel and that was The Old Dick

Anonymous said...

DEATH OF A WRITER, by Michael Collins was one of the most under rated books of 2006. Bar none.

Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

Nice to see Fast One mentioned. I've been looking for it recently after reading a rave about it in an anthology. My to-read list grows apace.

Re the excerpt from Castles Burning, isn't "purple-pantied pudenda" a creature from Dr. Seuss?
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Kent Morgan said...

I've read The Burnt Orange Heresy. It was recommended to me about 20 years ago by the owner of a very small store called the Book Nook in Madeira Beach on the Florida Gulf Coast. In that same store I came across a first edition of James Lee Burke's The Lost Get Back Boogie. Not a bad haul. I was back there in March and sadly discovered that the store like so many small independents was gone.